22 February, 2006

Theorising International Relations: Liberalism (part one)

Remember my threat to boringly roll through loads of theories of International Relations? Now, finally, I get to part two: LIBERALISM. For reasons of length, this will confusingly be divided into two parts.

First up, beware - Liberalism in this context may not be the same as what you associate with the term in domestic politics.

Liberalism and Realism are the two big theories of International Relations. As a coherent body of thought, Liberalism is much older, and was the dominant set of ideas when the discipline emerged after the First World War. In the aftermath of that catastrophe, the Liberals sought both to explain how the world worked and to increase the chances of such horror being avoided in future. So Liberalism is both descriptive and normative.

The lineage of Liberalism can be traced back to the Enlightenment, and to Immanuel Kant. Kant believed in human progress, and believed that the autocratic governments dominating ancien regime Europe were being swept away by new republican systems of government. Such regimes, he felt, would be far less inclined to go to war, for when the people are in power they will hardly send themselves off to be butchered. Instead, thought Kant, the new republics would come together in a league of nations, and work through their differences in a spirit of rationalism and mutual compromise.

The other plank of liberalism came in the 19th century - an almost utopian belief in the positive transformative power of market economics. 19th century liberals did not just have a functional fondness for free trade between nations - they saw it as a transmitter of kinship and fraternal association between the peoples of the world, almost like we would see the Internet now. This might be a product of the times, when markets were becoming free where previously they had been controlled by states, not for the kind of half-baked ideas the mid 20th century saw but to further state power. The freeing of markets thus could be seen by Liberals as part of the process of eroding the power of the monarchs.

Can you control your excitement? Can you wait until part two, when the story of Liberalism is brought up to date? READER - YOU HAVE NO CHOICE!!!

Or you could just click here.

11 February, 2006

Spy School 11-2-2006

A new semester brings with it two new courses. First up there is one on Eastern European stuff. Not much has happened with this yet. A big thing with the lecturer is the idea that Eastern Europe is defined by its in-between-ness, lying between Western Europe and Russia. What's going on in Eastern Europe is then defined by whichever one of these two is in the ascendant (he seems to assume that Eastern Europe always goes on a winner-takes-all basis to dominant power). The interesting thing is that Eastern Europe has over the last hundred years undergone several major sets of changes en bloc, with all of the region's very different countries going through them more or less simultanaeously. This is a godsend for social scientists, as it allows all kind of exciting cross-cultural comparisons to be made.

And then there is a course on Latin America, focusing on the region's relationship with the wider world economy. | have no amazing insights from this yet, but it was interesting to look at various development statistics for countries in the region. It goes without saying that Latin America is a good bit poorer than some other parts of the world, but the spread of wealth between Latin American countries is quite striking. For example, Bolivia has a GNP per capita around 15% that of its neighbour Argentina. Another interesting thing was that Chile seemed to be the most successful country at reducing abject poverty among its people, but was also one of the country's with the most unequal income distributions. This suggests that maybe there is a trade-off between fighting inequality and fighting poverty, and that if you are serious about raising people from gross impoverishment then you have to accept that rich people will either stay rich or become relatively richer.

This is a truly disturbing prospect. I hate rich people - the very thought of them sitting in their mansions being waited on by servants while they drink the blood of working folk makes me gibber with incandescent rage. But I hate poverty more, and if the poorest of society can only be raised from abject poverty by letting the rich bastards live their lives of luxury, then that is a price I consider worth paying.

09 February, 2006

The Magic of International Law - Part two

And so to that old bugbear about how the stuff in International Law is applied so erratically that it is hard to take it that seriously. I take a more optimistic view. Seventy years ago, the idea that a national leader could be taken to court abroad for any kind of human rights violation would have been laughable. Now, though, the world has moved in a direction where people have been banged up by international courts for taking part in the most serious of crimes against humanity. Now, you may well say that it is only losers who will find themselves in the dock at The Hague. However, any world leader will be familiar with the proposition that all political careers end in failure. Today's winner could be tomorrow's loser, and today's friend of the United States could be tomorrow's Saddam Hussein. So if we assume even a degree of rationality on the part of national leaders, the increasing prospect of indictment for heinous crimes might serve to deter them from engaging in them.

Those of us living in Europe have had the good fortune to live in states that signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights. Council of Europe states signed up to it as a bland declaratory we-wuv-rights kind of thing, and it then turned into this friendly monster bringing new rights and stuff to the people of Europe. Like in Ireland, where it led to the decriminalisation of voluntary sexual acts between men.

I also read somewhere once that the human rights bits of the Helsinki accords that setup the Organisation for Security Cooperaton in Europe were a serious contributor to the fall of Communism. The Sovs had signed up to them more or less for the laugh, but they saddled them with a series of intrusive human rights inspectors and reports that basically made them look like the cockfarmers they were.

More generally, there are a lot of human rightsy stuff that states have signed up to in order to look good which then have a rolling effect on how they conduct their internal affairs. There is some international convention on torture, for instance, which is contributing to the improvement of conditions in prisons and mental institutions in our countries. And then there is the European Union's human rights requirements for its members... if any of the candidate countries are shown to have knowingly collaborated with the operation of illegal torture camps by the USA then their application process will be fucked. And if any member countries are shown to have operated the secret gulag on their territory then they could notionally have their EU membership suspended. I concede that that is unlikely to happen, but any EU country who was allowing US torture centres on its territory would see the collapse of its ability to influence events within the Union.

Sorry if this is all a bit disjointed… that’s what you get when you cut and paste from mailing lists. And sorry if anyone from Spy School is reading this with an air of déja vu.

07 February, 2006

The Magic of International Law

They’ve been talking about International Law and human rights-y stuff over on the Helicopterview mailing list. I’ve just finished a semester long course on International Law, so you would think I am well placed to discuss this kind of thing. Sadly, you would be wrong, as I did not pay sufficient attention and have got back completely suckass grades for my coursework. But hey, ignorance has never stopped me before.

One thing about the course I did is that it was very law-y, in that it focussed on what the International Law in a variety of situations was. I would have preferred something that looked at International Law in terms of what it is meant to do and whose interests it is meant to serve, together with an analysis of how it works in practice and who benefits from it.

One of my Helicopterview correspondents raised the idea that the whole idea of states having rights – such as the right to have various types of weapons or whatever – is a bit dubious, given that a state is an abstraction and surely the whole idea of law ought to be to give people rights. Maybe so, but my understanding is that in International Law as it stands, states are both the primary actors and the primary subjects. International Law is based on the idea that states have both duties and rights with respect to other states, and also (increasingly) towards private individuals. This conferral of rights on an abstraction is not completely insane, and has parallels with the way domestic law bestows rights on corporations.

The International Court of Justice and the new International Criminal Court were mentioned, with it being suggested that these are a bit useless given their ineffective remit. The ICJ does seem to work in a funny way... basically, you can only be taken to court there if you agree to it. |n practice this means that it tends to be used to resolve interstate disputes where neither power sees a fundamental interest as being at stake. So you get cases about whether the border is 50 feet this way or that way. That said, some serious cases have come before it, either where both parties felt they couldn't opt out of it or where some FULE let themselves be taken to court there by mistake (the case about the USA arming the Contras and mining Nicaraguan ports was one of these).

The ICJ is nevertheless not a body designed to promote human rights, and faulting it for not doing so misses the point of its existence. The ICJ is actually there to help resolve interstate conflict, an entirely different matter. The distinction is important, because, as already mentioned, International Law has historically been primarily about how states operate with respect to each other, and not about how they treat their citizens or other subjects. All this human rights stuff in International Law is something novel and exciting.

Of the International Criminal Court, I say give it time before writing it off. It is only new and it will need to be in operation for a while before we can say what difference it makes. The ICC actually has universal jurisdiction, or will have once enough countries in the world ratify the ICC treaty (this may already have happened). This means that the ICC can indict even people from countries which are vehemently opposed to the ICC, making things potentially sticky for them should they ever want to travel beyond their homeland’s borders. One suckass country hostile to the ICC has signed lots of treaties with ICC states saying that they will not hand over its citizens to the ICC... however, these are thought to have no practical legal validity. It will be interesting to see what happens in practice should someone from this pro-war crime state ever be indicted by the ICC.

04 February, 2006

Hamas & Palestine

I went to an interesting lecture yesterday by Dr Francesco Cavatorta. He specialises in the study of political Islam, and was talking about the victory of Hamas in the recent Palestinian elections. Here is my attempted summary of what he said, interspersed with occasional opinions of my own. Sorry if it goes on a bit or accidentally distorts Dr Cavatorta's opinions.

Hamas are in some ways like other Islamist groups in the Arab world. They seek to change the behaviour of individuals, in order to build a better society more in tune with Islamic principles and ultimately to seize control of the state apparatus. Like other Islamic parties they are happy to advance their goals through the political process - engaging in elections and so on.

However, Hamas have one major difference with other Islamist parties - they see themselves as engaged in a national liberation struggle against the Israeli state. As well as striving to Islamise Palestinian society, they seek to liberate all of historic Palestine from the perceived occupation of the Israelis. That is to say they seek to build a Palestinian state in all of pre-1948 Palestine.

While Hamas has an uncompromising charter, in practice they have shown themselves to be more flexible and pragmatic. In particular, they have prioritise the national liberation struggle over the goal of Islamising society. They have done this basically to build and maintain Palestinian unity in the face of Israeli power, and thus have refrained from attempts to impose their social vision.

One interesting thing about Hamas is how internally democratic it is, with the rank and file being closely involved in the formulation of policy. This is a virtue born of necessity. Israel has systematically exterminated the leadership of Hamas, so it is necessary to keep the rank and file fully onboard with all policy decisions so that there are no discontinuities when the next cohort take their brief turn at the top.

In the elections a couple of factors contributed to their victory over Fatah. Fatah is seen as having failed to deliver on bread and butter issues while engaging in corrupt cronyism. Hamas has made populist promises on economic issues, and as an opposition group it has not hitherto been able to engage in serious corruption. More generally, though, Hamas has profited from Palestinian disenchantment with the whole Oslo process; this has also seen Fatah itself move towards a rejectionist position.

So now what? There is no real likelihood of Hamas formally abandoning its campaign of violence against Israel, nor is their any likelihood of Israel and a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority engaging in face to face talks. However, Israel and Hamas have in the past had low-key indirect talks, and these are likely to continue [I have read an interview with a senior Israeli army officer, where he said that the Israeli army routinely meets with Hamas members when they hold local political office, so it is possible that Dr Cavatorta is underestimating the possibility of direct discussions between Hamas members and the Israeli state].

The West will probably choose not to talk to Palestine's new elected leaders. Western aid donors may well punish the Palestinian people for choosing Hamas, but this will not matter as much as people think. Western aid is not enormous in absolute terms, and could readily be made up by private and public donors in the Gulf and Iran. Hamas would probably prefer western money, but it will take what it can get.

Beyond that, a lot depends on whether Hamas succeeds in enticing Fatah into a national unity government. The populist promises of Hamas are probably undeliverable, so if Hamas governs on its own, it could see its popularity ebb, with Fatah staging an electoral return to power in a couple of years. By then Israel will have lengthened and strengthened its wall, and will be in a position to offer a take-it-or-leave-it Palestinian state of disconnected enclaves.

A solo Hamas government may find itself drawn toward imposing its social vision on Palestinian society as a compensation for lack of progress on the economic and national liberation fronts. This will probably further contribute to an erosion in Hamas popularity, as the Palestinian people have shown surprisingly little enthusiasm for the Islamist social project, and have punished Hamas at the polls in areas where they have attempted to enforce it.

What do I think? Well, if Fatah have the interests of the Palestinian people at heart they will join a national unity government, but if they are self-interested they will stay out. In a couple of years they could return to power, but whether they will accept the job of being Israel's bantustan enforcers remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, there is another possibility entirely - that Israel, dissatisfied with elections that produce leaderships that won't play ball, may simply shut down the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian electoral process.

02 February, 2006

They call him Chompers

It is interesting how low Noam Chomsky’s reputation is in the academic world of International Relations. One of my lecturers hedged as to why this is the case, but a couple of things spring to mind - i) the discipline's distaste for a specialist in another discipline entirely suddenly sticking his oar in ii) Chompers' "public intellectual" persona fitting ill with the refined world of academic debate iii) more generally, a sense that his writings on the subject are more polemical than seriously academic and iv) the possibility that Chomsky just says the same inadequately demonstrated stuff over and over again.

I can't comment on his work, not having read any of it, but I did recently read an interesting article* about him which asserted that his stuff on media control is rejected by academia through the kind of controversy avoidance processes he talks about. The article mentioned some other team of researchers who came up with more or less the same analysis as Chompers, but are far more cited. The difference between them and Chomsky, though, is that they are not poster boys for the radical left. I wonder how cited he is in linguistics, his actual discipline of speciality.

Separately, I have noticed this tendency on both the right and left to judge Chomsky as though he was some kind of moral teacher leading by example rather than a linguistics professor who dabbles in political analysis. What is strange about this is that Chomsky has never offered himself as a living example of how to lead the good life. Seeing him as such is surely indicative of a weak analysis of the socialist project generally. Leftism is not a religion, and socialists analyse the world to say how to change it, not to tell people how to live their lives. Meanwhile, rightists display an obsessive desire to demonstrate hypocrisy on the part of Chomsky, as though his having a shares portfolio somehow disproves his opinions on the world’s political/economic structure. This is entirely nonsense. Capitalist exploitation is systemic rather than based on the actions of “bad” individuals.

*Herring E & Robinson P (2003) Review of International Studies 29 pp. 553-568 ‘Too Polemical or too critical? Chomsky on the news media and US foreign policy’